John Mozeliak has been fairly busy this offseason. He’s landed an impact bat, a legit lefty in the pen and a backup catcher. Those were without a doubt necessary acquisitions, but there are still some question marks surrounding the 2019 team. One of the biggest is that of who will be the closer?
There are some options remaining on the free agent market, like Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen and Kelvin Herrera, but it doesn’t seem like the Redbirds are going that route. Especially after what happened last year with Greg Holland. Consequentially, unless they can steal one of those guys for next to nothing, their closer for next season is already on the roster.
Jordan Hicks is an interesting candidate to close games for the Cards next year. It seems as though his obvious future role is in the ninth inning, but he might not be ready just yet. That decision will be made by the front office and Mike Shildt though, likely in Spring Training.
Last year Hicks burst on to the big league scene with his explosive fastball, sinker combo and a devastating slider. At times he looked like the best reliever in the game. However, at other times he just looked like a 22 year old kid who threw hard and had no clue where the pitch was going. The latter version raises some caution with thrusting him into the closer position so early in his career. In a division that’s as competitive as the NL Central is going to be, every game matters. Which means, the Cardinals can’t afford to give them away because they’re experimenting with a young closer.
Alex Reyes’ case for closer has a lot of parallels to Hicks’. He’s a young pitcher still with not a lot of experience, despite having lights out stuff. The original plans for Reyes revolved around the starting rotation. Long term, that might still be the case, but for now, the Redbirds have to find a way to keep him healthy.
One way they can try to do that is to limit his innings. Clearly, if he’s pitching exclusively in the eighth and ninth innings he won’t be throwing as many total innings, but he might have to pitch multiple days in a row. It’s hard to quantify the difference in stress throwing 20 pitches every day has on an arm, versus throwing 100 pitches every fifth day.
Reyes definitely has the arsenal to close though. He’s got a triple-digit fastball and really good off-speed pitches. If the Cardinals want to utilize him without trying to get 150 plus innings out of his arm, putting him in the closing role might be a good way to do that.
One of Mozeliak’s big moves was, of course, signing Andrew Miller to a two-year deal. He signed on to solidify the left side of the bullpen, but he could also fill the void in the ninth if need be. He does have experience finishing games. Between 2015 and ’16 he saved 48 for the Yankees.
Throughout his career, he’s had success against both left handed and right handed hitters, so if the Cards decide to put him in the ninth, that won’t be an issue. Clearly, if they do so, it opens the hole back up that Miller was intended to fill though. In turn, using him as the closer might mean they have to go get yet another left-handed reliever.
As of now, Carlos Martinez is slated to be in the rotation. He’s been starting since 2015 and despite never really figuring out how to consistently pitch like an ace, he’s been really good. Unfortunately, he’s had some injury issues though. In 2015 he was shut down before the end of the season with shoulder issues. Then, this past season, an oblique injury knocked him out of the rotation after just 18 starts.
If Mozeliak decides they need a lefty in the rotation, or just another bona fide starter in general, and he goes out and gets one, it might push Martinez to the bullpen. Much like the case with Reyes, it would allow the team to manage his workload and keep him on the field.
Should that happen, Martinez might be the best-suited candidate for the closer position. He came up in the bullpen and pitched some big innings for the Cards back in 2013 and ’14. During those seasons he acted as the late inning set up man. He also closed out five games toward the end of last season. His repertoire fits the bill as well, and with so many young right-handed arms in the pen already, he leaves no void like Miller would if he were called on to close.
Decisions to be Made
The important thing is, the team has options. There are plenty of guys in the system that could potentially work and they have the financial flexibility to go out and get anyone else they want. They might not even start the season with their full time closer on the roster. If none of the other options work out, the trade market might be where they find their guy.
Whatever they decide it will likely shape the rest of the bullpen as well and could be the difference between getting back to the postseason and sitting out another October.
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